Tuesday 19 April 2016

Why Undercover feels like one of the most important TV dramas for a long time

We are only three episodes into Peter Moffat’s drama, Undercover, on BBC1, and already it feels like one of the most important television events for years.

Why do I say that?

Well, for starters, the two lead actors – Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester - are both Black. They are playing a professional couple with a family. They have Black friends. They have a history of Black activism – especially Okonedo’s character, Maya, who is a lawyer working in both England and the US. Many of the supporting characters are Black.

We get to see a Black family doing ordinary things – eating pasta, driving to Cornwall, coping with the everyday problems of a special needs teenager. We see Okonedo and Lester in bed together, talking and having the sort of married-for-a-long-time sex that is as likely to end in hysterical laughter as grand passion.

Secondly, in the first few minutes of the programme, we are hit with the full horror of the system of capital punishment in the US – something that affects the Black population out of all proportion. We are told things I was aware of via Reprieve or the New Jim Crow – e.g. that you can’t serve on a jury for a capital case if you don’t support the death sentence, or that there are jails where the entire population is Black. But we see details that could never have imagined - such as the radio station that follows executions blow by blow, plays Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’ with triumphalist glee and then does a countdown to the moment of the lethal injection is given.

But it is very easy for us in Britain to point at America and tell ourselves that all these problems are ‘over there.’ That we, here, have nothing to worry about. Undercover does not let us off the hook so easily. In the core of the story, back in London, we are forced to confront
  • The consequences of police brutality and institutionalised racism in the UK
  • The lengths the establishment are prepared to go to cover it up
  • The cynical use of undercover policemen to build relationships with those under surveillance
Moffat has the compassion, too, to look at the question of the undercover policeman from both sides, to imagine the price paid by someone who gives up their own life to live that of their ‘legend.’

It is a shame that Undercover does not also showcase the work of a Black writer and director. But that doesn’t, I hope, detract from what Peter Moffat and James Hawes have achieved. There are little moments that demonstrate that Moffat has been listening with sensitivity. Moments like the conversation between Maya and the man she is defending on Death Row, dismissed by the Radio DJ as ‘a talk about hair products’ but which is really about Maya’s daughter and how she connects with her Black identity. Then there is throwaway line on the daughter’s arrival, as a new student, at her Oxford college. She is approached by an older Black student who has been assigned to be her ‘college mum.’ “It’s usually a mum and a dad,” she says, “but I hope you don’t mind having a single parent.” No need to spell out why they couldn’t find her a ‘college dad.’

Undercover is blowing me away, and I can’t wait to find where it takes us next. I just hope that, for once, this will prove to be a door opening to a new kind of normal, and not just a tick in a box marked ‘diversity’ that can then be safely forgotten about for another ten years.

Edit after watching final episode:
Wow! Yes I know there were some plot holes, but not nearly as many as you would think from reading Twitter. (Weren't people paying attention?) But there was a moment towards the end of the episode when I screamed so loudly that my son came running to see if I was all right. That was the level of my emotional investment in the story. Or more particularly, in the family at the heart of the story, so brilliantly created by Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo. Do I want to see a second series? Hell, yes!

Friday 8 April 2016

Yvvette Edwards: finding inspiration from Monserrat to Hackney

In an event organised by Media Diversified, the launch of Yvvette Edwards’ second novel, The Mother, was held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31st March.

Edwards, interviewed by Media Diversified founder, Joy Francis, proves to be softly spoken, self deprecating, engaging and – despite the often dark nature of her subject matter – very funny. Like many of her characters, she was brought up in Hackney and is of Montserratian-British heritage.

Francis begins by asking Edwards about the early inspirations for her writing.

Edwards says she was first inspired to write by her family’s reaction to the death of Elvis. “If you listened to my mother and aunts, you’d have thought a close family member had died ... I discovered writing could be very cathartic.”

As a young girl, she read ‘anything and everything,’ but she describes reading The Friends by Rosa Guy – with its black protagonist created by a black author – as a seminal moment.

She cites Stephen King as another author she admired. “But I’m getting old. My nerves can’t handle reading his stories any more.”

Her greatest love, though, is reserved for the Nobel prize winner, Toni Morrison. “It’s not too strong to say I worship Toni Morrison. Her language is so beautiful and the subjects she handles are so raw.”

Edwards then reads a passage from her debut novel, A cupboard full of coats, longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011. It is a passage where an old family friend, Lemon, cooks soup for Jinx, evoking memories of the past she has tried so hard to bury. Judging the laughter she evokes with certain lines, Edwards taps into many things shared across the Caribbean diaspora.

Francis asks her about the fact that both her books deal, in very different ways, with violence and in particular with knife crime.

Both books arose, in part, from ‘inciting incidents’ in her own life, she tells us. A cupboard full of coats was inspired by a friend who managed to rid herself of a violent partner, only to hear that the same man had murdered his next girlfriend; The Mother by a random and violent knife attack on her own stepson.

“I used to write about far more cheerful subjects, but when I was coming up to by 40th birthday, I think I discovered my mortality,” Edwards says. “I want to write about what isn’t written about – the stories and voices we don’t hear. I write about things I am troubled by.”

Edwards admits that she wrote several pieces before A cupboard full of coats – things that she would send off ‘without any editing’ and would be offended by any criticism she received in return, throw that piece away and start on something else.

“But then I got to the point in my life when I was thinking about what dreams I had to let go of, and what I needed to start taking seriously. I dragged myself up by my lapels and gave myself a talking to.”

And the result was A cupboard full of coats.

“The big difference was that I edited. I discovered that I loved it. That glee of finding the perfect word!”

How difficult had she found ‘that difficult second novel?’

Edwards revealed that she had written about 80 thousand words of another book that wasn’t working. “I asked myself all sorts of questions I’d never asked myself before, like ‘what are your themes?’ I could feel I was struggling. But it allowed me to work through the angst. And as soon I started working on The Mother, the writing flowed again.”

She chose to write from the perspective of a mother, rather than that of the kids experiencing knife crime, because “I wanted a narrator closer to me in age, someone who would ask the questions I wanted to ask, who would want to try and understand the perpetrator.”

Finally, Francis asked the very penetrating question, “How did writing The Mother change you?”

Writing dark books does take you to some dark places, Edwards admits. “But my views on young people and knife crime did undergo a massive shift. I thought I had a strong social conscience anyway, but this enhanced it. I think I am less judgemental, more empathetic.”

You can read my review of A Cupboard Full of Coats on Book Muse UK.